• A visit to Danouen in Makinohara, Shizuoka, to see the winter tea creation process:
    How a courageous resolution has provided strength to a couple dedicated to tea (1st half)


    This winter was harsh in Japan, with many news reports of severe snowfalls in the colder regions. In the winter months, tea farmers generally enter a period of preparation for the coming season, cutting back their tea plants and fertilizing the soil.

    At first glance, the tea gardens of Danouen in Shizuoka’s Makinohara City appear to be undergoing a typical winter transformation. The plants have entered a state of “hibernation” after being cut back into shape at the end of October, and the farmers are busy with the daily tasks of preparing the soil for the season’s first harvest in April and May by providing it with organic fertilizers and laying down straw.

    “We’ve had a few visits from wild boars at night recently, digging up the soil. The pits they dig can be very deep, so it can be quite dangerous.”

    Smiling as she shares the latest headache facing the farmers of Danouen is Tomoko Takatsuka. Together with her husband, third-generation proprietor Sadao Takatsuka, she is responsible for the day-to-day running of Danouen. With 2.2 hectares worth of tea plants to take care of, it is no easy task for just two people.

    Just a short distance from the main garden is a secondary garden featuring tea grown in a more natural way. Here, Mount Fuji can be seen through the leaves of a variety called Benifuki.

    “If we wanted to cut corners, there are any number of places we could,” explains Sadao. “There’s so much for us to do. At this time of year, the two of us are both engaged in other jobs as well, so we have essentially no time off at all. We’re always inspired to try something new in terms of tea cultivation, so we have to use this winter season to prepare a new space for that. That means we have to fire up our machinery too, so we always end up creating a lot of extra work for ourselves.”

    No rest for the committed tea farmer. And yet the smile rarely leaves his face the whole time we are together. I learn that the secret behind this smile derives from a certain recent resolution, but we will come to that in the second half of this article.

    For now, the Takatsukas are about to show me how they make Danouen’s special roasted green tea.

    Production continues all through the winter for their handmade pot-roasted green tea

    After being shown around their tea gardens, I am invited inside a building filled with tea-making machinery. The “other job” Sadao referred to earlier is the operation of a company that installs and fixes tea-making equipment. The machinery I can see has been sent to them by their various clients for maintenance.

    The roasted green tea I am served warms my body after its buffeting by the winter winds.

    In fact, this particular tea has been made in a unique way. Sencha leaves, also sold as deep-steamed tea, are very slowly hand-roasted in a large pot, stirred all the while with a large T-shaped stick reminiscent of a rowboat’s oar.

    Given to them by a friend, the pot was originally used for boiling water to be used for steaming sweet potatoes. The base beneath the pot, with built-in gas burners, was built by Sadao himself, using scrap he was allowed to take from his “part-time job” in a machinery factory. The pot has been installed at a slight angle for ease of use. Even the T-shaped stirrer is made by hand; every step of the process is hand-crafted in every sense of the word.

    “I never actually learned how to make roasted green tea, and my father never gave me any instructions,” admits Sadao. “The only thing he said when I told him I planned to make pot-roasted tea was ‘Don’t burn it.’ Other than that, it’s all just been trial and error on our part. A couple of years ago, a relative gave me a pot-roasting machine, and I had high hopes that it would simplify the process, but it just didn’t work right. I gave it five or six tries, and my wife declared it was no good,” he laughs. “She’s never really tasted any roasted green tea other than our own, so she tends to dismiss anything that tastes even slightly different.”

    Using the large stirrer, he gently lifts the three kilograms of tea leaves up from bottom left to top right, then returns them to the bottom of the pot. Every now and then, he flips the stirrer over and takes the leaves from bottom right to top left. His repetitive movements give off a gentle susurration, like the sound of waves rippling to the shore again and again.

    “He keeps at it for three hours until the color eventually begins to change, and it begins to give off smoke,” explains Tomoko, from her position watching alongside me.

    With no breaks and no one to relieve him, Sadao stares into the leaves and continues stirring for three hours. Usually, he explains, he works outside during daylight hours, before beginning on roasting the tea once the sun goes down. During or after rainfall, the humidity in the air has an adverse effect on the process, so he cannot do it. This is how sensitive and delicate his task is and how much perseverance it requires. It seems fair to say that only a man with his bottomless reserves of patience and commitment would be capable of creating such a product.

    Turn the sound on to listen to the soothing rhythms of the leaves being roasted.

    “But we fail quite often,” confesses Sadao. “I’d say we fail about two times out of three.”

    I see—like baseball, this is the sort of endeavor in which you have to be happy batting .300. I can readily imagine that Sadao and Tomoko have some line between success and failure that only they can recognize.

    “I said the process fails two times out of three, but what we do is we drink it ourselves, and if we have the slightest doubts about its quality, we don’t sell it. We return it to the fields as fertilizer, but it never sees the light of day.”

    To be perfectly honest, Tomoko’s words shock me. They spend three hours lovingly crafting each batch, yet the majority of them end up as fertilizer?

    And this is before you even consider the hours and hours of work that have gone into creating the tea prior to the roasting stage.

    I suddenly realize that this means I might not get to taste the batch Sadao is working on right now.

    “You might not,” grins Tomoko.

    “We’ll just have to wait and see,” adds Sadao, never resting his hands for a second.

    Only now do I realize I have been taking for granted that the tea they spent so long making would obviously end up being consumed. Sensing anew the nobility of Sadao’s task, I find myself willing him on to success.

    But as for whether the batch ends up fulfilling my hopes… we will have to wait until the second part of the article to find out.

    A family-owned and operated tea farm, founded by Sadao’s grandfather Goro Takatsuka in 1952 and operated for over 70 years since. Located in the major tea-growing region of Makinohara, it is unusual for its cross-generational cultivation of multiple varieties of tea and its unique creation of pan-fired teas and black teas. Third-generation proprietor Sadao met his wife Tomoko when they were both students at an agricultural university, and now the two of them carry out almost every operation of the business by themselves, from picking to pan-firing to the creation of an eclectic range of teas, including deep-steamed teas, black teas, and roasted green teas. In addition to their twice-monthly participation in the Daita Morning Market in Tokyo’s Setagaya, where they sell their tea leaves direct to consumers, their wares can also be bought online.


    Photo & Video: Taro Oota
    Text & Edit: Yoshiki Tatezaki